Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Phony Balance, A Phony Crisis & A Phony Study

The current debt ceiling "crisis" has thrown a spotlight on a particularly damnable practice of the corporate press, the elevation of "balance" over accuracy. Columnist Paul Krugman issued an appropriately impassioned complaint about this yesterday:

"Think about what’s happening right now. We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating--offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

"So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent--because news reports always do that."
Krugman argues that the press and pundits need to "break with the convention that both sides are equally at fault" in this matter because holding to it amounts to affirmatively misleading the public.

Over at Newsbusters, associate editor Noel Sheppard isn't about to touch the merits of that argument. He offers, instead, a fanciful strawman "interpretation" of it as a condemnation by Krugman of "balance and centrism," a call to "censor conservative views about the debt ceiling," an insistence that "the news media... only report the side he [Krugman] agrees with." Sheppard is both a profoundly stupid man and a chronically deceitful one--I leave it to the reader to judge which of these defects are at play here.

Sheppard seeks to refute Krugman by arguing that, actually, the big three network newscasts "have consistently cast the GOP as the villains in this debate" and he has a new study to cite that shows it. Except it turns out to be just another phony "study" by his Media Research Center of the kind the MRC is notorious for grinding out and it neither refutes Krugman nor backs Sheppard's characterization of it.

The MRC's "About" page asserts that the organization aims to prove the liberal bias of the press "through sound scientific research." It mentions science a few times, actually. Makes them sound serious. In practice, the MRC gang treats "sound scientific research" as some sort of liberal trick and steers well clear of it. Their standard game, when it comes to assembling a "study," is to invent some ridiculous, phony, completely subjective standard, one they engineer specifically for the purpose of having the press fall short of it, then collect all the examples of the press falling short of it and report these as "findings." The aim is partisan distortion and obfuscation.

In the present case, there apparently isn't even any actual "study" readers can see and to which I can link. Instead, the MRC analysts' results are recorded in this column by MRC Deputy Research Director Geoffrey Dickens. But even if we humor the conceit that there is some sort of "study" here, the information about it we're given is sufficient to place it in that dismal tradition of MRC 'studies." As Dickens tells it, analysts looked at every story about the debt ceiling from the three networks' morning and evening programs from 1 July 1 to 22 July. He reports their methodology thusly:
"Analysts reviewed each story, then tallied all reporter statements and soundbites which clearly assigned responsibility to Republicans or Democrats. If the majority of statements within that story assigned blame to one party or the other, it was scored as 'blaming Republicans' or 'blaming Democrats.' If the story contained a balanced number of statements, it was recorded as 'balanced.'"
While Sheppard used the results generated by this methodology to refute Krugman, a glaringly obvious hole in it--more like a gaping chasm--is the very one Krugman identified; the assumption that both sides are to blame for the current situation. If they aren't, then the reports the "study" identifies as "balanced" are, in fact, a complete misrepresentation of reality, not "balanced" at all.

And to be crystal clear, when it comes to the matter of the debt ceiling, Republicans are solely and entirely responsible for making it a "crisis" and keeping it one. Not just partially responsible or even mostly responsible. 100% responsible.

Raising the debt ceiling is a routine housekeeping matter for the government.[1] Failure to do so, however, would result in a disastrous default and because of this, Republicans, primarily those in the House of Representatives, have attempted to use it for blackmail, refusing to support any effort to raise the ceiling unless they're granted extraordinary budgetary concessions, concessions they wouldn't be able to get under the normal budget process. In their insistence on linking the current debt ceiling to the future budget process,[2] they assumed full responsibility for the present situation. The "crisis" is their arbitrary creation and they can end it at any moment, merely by passing a single sheet of paper containing a single sentence that alters a single number.

Obama and congressional Democrats chose, very unwisely, to negotiate with the hostage-takers and have offered up to the Republicans deep spending cuts, including cuts in "entitlement" programs, but because Obama's plan also involved some increased revenue from Big Money, Republican House speaker John Boehner abandoned the negotiations (while, in the Bizarro world of the nut right, the far-right press has loudly, repeatedly and falsely asserted the Obama has offered Republicans nothing). Democrats hold the White House and the majority in the Senate and the cuts offered by Obama are absolutely anathema to the Democratic base and to the overwhelming majority of the public as well, yet they were still offered as part of a compromise. As Peter Hart put it over on the FAIR blog yesterday, "by any reasonable standard, the White House and the Democratic leadership have made an array of drastic compromises in order to win favor with Republicans." The only reason there isn't a deal is that Republicans have been unwilling to compromise on anything on their end. They control one part of one house of congress but are demanding a capitulation by everyone else so complete that they've walked away from proposals so heavily stacked in their favor that even offering them could spell political doom for Obama. Again, the Republicans are entirely responsible for the lack of a deal.

So when the MRC gange comes along and does their little "study" and pretends as if a "balanced" report on the matter must equally blame both sides, they're shoveling the same rancid fecal matter they always have.

And there's even more stink on it.

The Dickens article asserts that, of the stories that assigned blame to someone for the current crisis, "the skew was lopsidedly anti-Republican," with 66% of stories "mainly assigning them the blame for the impasse," while 20% suggested Democrats "bore more responsibility" and 14% were "balanced."

Given that Republicans are demonstrably 100% responsible for the current mess, it would, indeed, be a scandal if 34% of press stories either blamed Democrats more or blamed both sides equally but there's no reason to believe these results bear any relationship to reality.

Relevant to Sheppard's attempt to use these results against Krugman is the fact that MRC isn't dividing reports that blame both sides from those that blame only one side. Those who carried out the "study" are, instead, dividing the reports into categories based on their subjective judgment of which side a report blames more than the other. A subjective judgment of a subjective judgment by people who are demonstrably incapable of rendering sound objective judgments.

If the MRC's long history doesn't sufficiently make that last point apparent, the few examples cited by the article as representative of an anti-Republican slant do the trick. Amy Robach and Ann Curry from the Today Show questioned whether Republicans were wasting time or putting on a show for their constituents by insisting on debating proposals everyone acknowledged had no chance of passing. Merely by asking what seem like glaringly obvious questions, they were both judged to be blaming Republicans. CBS correspondent Nancy Cordes was judged as blaming Republicans based on a story in which she reported on Democratic complaints about House majority leader Eric Cantor, even though she asserted in that report that Cantor was being made a "fall guy" by the Democrats. Most hilariously, ABC News' Jake Tapper is said to have "used the words of former Republican Senator Alan Simpson to shame the GOP." Simpson is, of course, a very conservative fellow, a die-hard Republican and a hyper-partisan to the point of rather extreme obnoxiousness but a report was judged as "blaming Republicans" because it included his views. And so on.

If that sort of grasping at straws doesn't do it for you, this next part will be a treat.

The MRC threw out most of its initial sample. About 56% of it. While the "study" encompassed 202 stories, MRC's conclusions are based on only 85--always a huge warning sign. 56% of reports were judged as assigning no blame at all and even if we embarked upon the fool's errand of accepting these demonstrably flawed subjective judgments, this is hardly the mark of a press corps dedicated to blaming Republicans. That number alone is enough to put the lie to Sheppard's claim that the "study" shows the press has "consistently cast the GOP as the villains in this debate." If we accept the "study," the press hasn't consistently cast anyone as the villain.

With what does this leave us? A manufactured political "crisis,"[3] a "media watchdog" that acts as propagandists for those responsible for it and a press corps that does things like this and faces only the complaints of lefty bloggers for it as it threatens to mislead the nation over a cliff.




[1] During the Bush Jr. administration, it was raised 7 times.

[2] Raising the debt ceiling doesn't involve new spending; it merely allows the government to cover the spending congress has already authorized, a fact that, notably, is barely mentioned in press coverage.

[3] Albeit one that is a manifestation of a real political crisis--the behavior of the Republican party.

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